Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Diversity in Retailing

I read yesterday that Eric Watson, vice president of Talent Acquisition and The Office of Diversity of Food Lion LLC, one of the largest supermarket operators in the country, received the first-ever Diversity Champion Award from The Diversity Forum, a non-profit organization that promotes diversity and inclusion in business (

Good for him. I bring this to your attention because I had the honor of including Eric as a featured speaker in April 2006 at the first, and regrettably only, Retailing in an Age of Diversity Conference co-produced by Chain Store Age and DiversityInc. As I editorialized at the time, the conference proved to be one of the most satisfying and proudest moments of my time covering the retail industry. But it also was one of the most disappointing and frustrating days.

Though some-90 executives attended, they came almost exclusively from the largest retailers, companies such as Wal-Mart, The Home Depot, Ace Hardware, J.C. Penney, Staples, Target, Kohl’s, and Nordstrom. Hardly any retailer with less than a billion dollars in sales found it important enough to send at least one representative to hear information and strategies to help diversify their organizations. I was distressed at their lack of interest.

The audience that day was a true rainbow coalition. But it was not representative of what I witnessed during 32 years of attending conferences. At most forums and tradeshows, the number of Black, Hispanic and Asian participants was woefully lacking, especially when one considers that the percentage of employees from those groups within the retail industry is significant. Over the years, more women did show up at industry events, but their numbers at industry conferences, too, failed to measure up to their roughly 50% employment rate in retailing.

I have no acceptable explanation why minorities are not more universally represented among the most visible ranks of executives of retail companies and their suppliers. I just know that three decades of observing conference attendees left me as color conscious in 2009 as I was in 1977 when I began covering the retail industry.